Carroll Dale Short

New Introduction (2013)

By Carroll Dale Short

     I put off going home as long as I could, because home is gone.

     Or at least my family's portion of it is--the jagged swath of land and houses cut into hilly, coal-mining country roughly midway between Birmingham and Jasper, Alabama. Five generations of us called it home for more than a hundred years, watching for the community's soldiers to come home from World War I in the same front yards where we would later peer into a K-Mart telescope late at night to catch a glimpse of the U.S. space shuttle in low earth orbit.

     I don't remember a time when any of us ever thought the place would last. Jesus was always just on the verge of coming back to earth, and my most recurring nightmare was the godawful mess that the Book of Revelation's beasts and giant white horses would make of my grandmother's flower garden in the process.

     During my teenage years it appeared that global nuclear war might beat Jesus to the punch. And even after the Cuban Missile Crisis settled down, the usual threatening fare rumbled constantly at our perimeters: dynamite blasts from strip mines, tornadoes remaking the texture of the landscape even more summarily than land developers could.

     Nobody ever anticipated that the end would come in a simple letter from the state highway department.

     As it turned out, the Appalachian Development Highway System--a federal ball set rolling in 1963 by President John F. Kennedy--had finally worked its way down through geographical latitudes and letters of the alphabet to a massive project with the working name "Corridor X," a long overdue interstate that would mainly bear commercial truck traffic between Birmingham and Memphis, which was once recognized as the most heavily traveled highway of its length in the U.S..

     Then we heard that the Corridor would miss Shanghi by a stone's throw. Doomsday had been a false alarm. But as the sight of surveying crews at the edge of town became more and more common, we realized something was up. The false-alarm news had itself been false, and the process of eminent domain was now taking a portion of Shanghi for use as a cloverleaf ramp.

     One day I mentioned this fact to a magazine editor for whom I'd written articles in the past. He asked if I'd be interested in writing a piece about the demise of our homeplace, and I agreed.

     In the coming weeks, as I did my research, I started by going to the scene of the crime: the Highway Department offices where administrators and engineers had initially sketched out the route of the new Corridor. Seen in isolation in their bright fluorescent offices, the progression of maps looked neat, professional, reasonable.

     I was introduced to a gentleman who worked as "community liaison" for the department, a euphemism for the thankless job of standing in front of a succession of auditoriums and explaining to angry residents why their peaceful town was about to be split by an interstate.

     I found him disturbingly likeable. He told me he had mostly learned to take the resultant hard feelings from his job in stride, and that he'd probably react the same way if his own homeplace was threatened. He also said the public forums he spoke to were remarkably similar:

     "At some point, a person in the audience will stand up and say, 'The whole reason I moved out here was to get away from six-lane highways!' And I have to say, 'Yes ma'am, but if so many of y'all hadn't moved out here, we wouldn't need to build a six-lane highway."

     At the end of my conversation with the Highway Department guy, as we were shaking hands goodbye, he said as an afterthought: "You know, the name of your road didn't help matters any." I must have looked blank because he prompted me, "Corridor X?" Indeed, the temporary name of the interstate had seemed to add insult to injury. "Had a science-fiction sound," he said. "Like 'X, the unknown.' I even had one man tell me it was part of a secret government plot.”

     We laughed at this. "I showed him on a map where Corridor W and Corridor Y were being built," he said. "But I don't think he believed me."

     My journalistic research even included an evening at an ancient drive-in theater advertising a showing of "Twister," the unspoken moral of whose airborne, terrified heifers was that my hometown could have fared a lot worse.

     I finished my magazine article on deadline, submitted it, and a few days later got a call from the editor, who sounded nervous. He said he was disappointed but they'd have to pay me a "kill fee"--a polite term in the publishing industry for a token payment to help cover expenses when a manuscript is deemed not suitable for print.

     He apologized again and again, saying that, compared to my other writing he'd used in the past, the Shanghi piece was "oddly passionless."

     And he was right.

     On a cloudy spring morning in 2012, my longtime friend Rick Watson and I are poking through a dense patch of vines and brush in some woods near a highway cloverleaf of Highway I-22 where, as near as we can tell, my childhood home once stood.

     It occurs to me that this is how a professional archaeologist must feel, silently combing through a mute section of landscape--attention focused on pursuit of even the smallest clue that might veer up and suggest some recognizable plan or purpose of earlier human beings who have long since rotted and turned to dirt. Except that in this case I could be nowhere near objective because their whole purpose was myself, and their plan was to get me through the first twenty years of my life.

     Eerily, nothing in the landscape seems at all familiar to me. The breeze on our faces quickly becomes cooler, and the slightest mist of rain begins. Then we half-heartedly pull apart a tangle of kudzu, and the corner of a grayed concrete slab appears. We stomp on the low brush and find that the concrete extends a few yards in both directions. A small light bulb flicks on in my memory: the rectangular surface must be the small square patio my grandfather built for us in the sloping side yard--a square concrete picnic table around a broad old oak, and just enough room at its perimeter to set up a barbecue grill and some folding lawn chairs, for occasions such as the Fourth of July and Labor Day.

     If that's the case, then the ruin of the main house will be about fifteen long strides directly through the more dense brambles to the southwest. But even the hoe that Rick has brought allows us to chop only so far into the dark damp greenery and we can see no chunk of remaining structure larger than a pair of old mortar-joined concrete blocks.

     But we tramp onward, and eventually my shoe hits an unseen chunk that sounds like glass: what we dig up is an empty, half-buried Pepsi-Cola bottle. Eureka; a sign of life. Then another bottle, and another, and then a king-sized ginger ale.

     A few more yards of the hoe doubling as a swing-blade, and it hits a different kind of glass: brown-colored, with a much more solid sound. The engraving on the glass informs us, "Pabst Blue Ribbon." As I'm examining the bottle Rick comments, "We're drifting too far from the shore."

     I break out laughing and can't stop, because we both know the old gospel hymn by heart in its entirety, even the little harmony runs done in an ethereal tenor, echoing "Peaceful shore...peaceful shore..." and we both know that my grandparents, after finding Jesus, had never let any form of alcohol cross their lips again.

     At that point I'm holding a muddy Pepsi bottle in one hand and a muddy Pabst in the other, and as I go to toss them into the back of his pickup truck as souvenirs the rain shower increases in strength until it's impossible to see across the old road; the individual pines become just a blur of gray and green.

     That's the moment I stub my toe on a rusty, half-buried cooking pot.

     These days, the way you get to Shanghi, Alabama, is to start by spelling it wrong. Every navigational device I've found spells the community "Shanghai" and shows as its central feature Shanghai Memorial Cemetery, which in a way is true. Though alongside the large and perfectly-kept graveyard sits the same small, white-clapboard Shanghi Baptist Church that generations of my family attended, and on a pew of which my great-grandfather John Brasfield died of a heart attack during a Sunday evening service. He passed so silently and without warning that his family assumed, until church was over, that he had only dozed off.

     Nowadays, to drive to Shanghi from the county seat of Jasper you head east on the former Corridor X, whose signs now say Interstate 22. After about 16 miles you take Exit 78 and bear right onto County Road 81, a two-lane blacktop surrounded on both sides by woods. About a third of a mile later, a random grove of mimosas appears on the right, offspring of the ones my grandmother imported into her yard over the years because she liked the pink color of the blossoms and the fact that the structure of each one looked like a miniature burst of fireworks. (I had a running dispute with her, as a child, that the sweet-smelling blooms could somehow be converted into either perfume or tea, but all of my chemistry experiments ended up with an odor halfway between cat urine and swamp-gas.)

     If you park your car on the gravel curb at this spot, and if you can find a good-sized chunk of rock and heave it directly over the mimosa trees with the strength of a young person, it should disappear and land somewhere near the center of the acreage where my ancestors--Brasfields, and then eventually Allens, Hodges, Shorts, and Tuckers--started putting down roots about 125 years ago.

     For posterity, I write down the GPS coordinates: N 33° 40.468, W 87° 05.027.

     Who knew?

     Other than our family's land, I discovered, the remainder of Shanghi has survived pretty much intact. The centerpiece of the community is still Shanghi Baptist Church, only a half-mile away, whose sprawling, beautifully kept cemetery now extends far past a hillock out back--a space that was formerly woods--toward the old Quinton Post Office. A neighbor of ours, Tommy Howell, once told me it was the only cemetery he'd ever heard of with a waiting list: “I mean, people are just dying to get in there.”

     I know I should take comfort in the fact that most of the community remains as it was, but oddly enough the opposite is the case. I recall the string of long nights when we sat up watching TV for news of the Cuban Missile Crisis and I actually made my peace with the idea of a world turned to cinders. There was a strangely alluring sense of equality to such a unified demise: no winners or losers, nobody to cluck their tongues and grieve. As it is, my family and its history seem to have been removed from the surroundings here with the precision of a cancer surgeon excising a tumor.

     A history note: I took a photograph of the cooking pot we'd uncovered and posted it on Facebook to ask if anyone had a guess as to the year of its manufacture. There was a quick flurry of replies, people saying their parents or grandparents had the exact cookware: West Bend / 5-quart / Made in U.S.A., and that it was probably sold in the mid-1950s, which fits with my memory.

     My grandfather built their house in his “spare time” while they were living in the basement of a concrete-block grocery store (which he had built in his spare time, while working at the coal mine and tending a large garden), along with their daughter, son-in-law, and my colicky asthmatic infant self. I'm guessing that few houses have ever been built with more motivation than theirs was.

     I can't remember any member of my family ever having fewer than two jobs at a time. This fact is both inspiring and intimidating to me. Every once in a while I try to imagine the sheer amount of physical labor they expended just to keep my brother and me in food, clothes, and shoes and eventually get us out of the nest. I can't fathom that quantity of work and hopefulness, and at this point I doubt I ever will.

* * *

     When I turn the Honda's ignition key to leave Shanghi, I'm surprised to hear my own voice coming from the radio. It takes my brain a moment to return to current reality, and then I recognize the radio spot promoting a weekly show I do on WJLX-FM in Jasper, featuring Alabama singers and songwriters.

     But just as this sinks in, I make a U-turn toward home and the speakers blast only static. In the background a man's voice is shouting, and as I get nearer the Interstate cloverleaf the static subsides enough that the words are audible: “Apostate!...Infidel!...You...” Then the radio tuner resolves itself and I'm hearing, on the same frequency as before, the religious programming my grandparents listened to when I was young. It's a station in Birmingham named WGIB (for “Where God Is Blessing”) and I figure the car is roughly equidistant from the two stations' antennas, because the blend of Oldies music, static, and hell-fire sermons shifts back and forth until I'm almost to the city of Cordova, and Oldies wins the battle of the air.

     A few weeks later—a Sunday, Father's Day--I'm driving home to Jasper from a business meeting in Birmingham, and on impulse I take Exit 78 toward Shanghi. The sky is cloudless. The parking lot of the church is full, and it's about 10 minutes until the 11 o'clock service starts. It occurs to me that I'm moderately dressed up, which is one rarity, and that I don't have to be someplace in a hurry, another rarity. I go inside and have a seat far in the back just as the pianist starts up on the opening hymn. The gentleman next to me shakes my hand and gives me a songbook. The song is “Power in the Blood,” one I know by heart, and from memory I try to sing the bass part like my grandfather did.

     The hymn ends, the pastor goes to the podium to make his opening announcements, and when I hear him say my name I'm as startled as I was by the car radio, weeks before. “We'd like to welcome Brother and Sister Brasfield's grandson, Dale,” he says, and adds, “Dale, do you have anything you'd like to say?”

     For a moment I feel like a first-grader called on by the teacher, but I manage to stand up and say, “No, sir. Just that I'm glad to be here.”

     “Well,” the preacher replies as I sit down, “you've always got a home here.”

     As he proceeds with the sermon, the lump in my throat grows and grows until the sides of my eyes become wet, and I have to take deep breaths so as not to make a sound.

     If it were a perfect world, he would have preached on The Prodigal Son. But I've got nothing to complain about. I know that one by heart, too.

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Copyright © 2013 Carroll Dale Short